Israel’s leader could not achieve at the negotiating table what he failed to win on the battlefield.

 

It will likely be some time before we learn the details of the Cairo negotiations over a Gaza cease-fire, which collapsed on Tuesday. Israel claims that Palestinian armed groups subsequently fired the first projectiles. The Palestinians accuse Israel of sabotaging the talks because it believed it had a rare opportunity to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif, launching seven guided missiles on a home in Gaza City’s Shaikh Radwan housing project that killed Deif’s wife and infant son.

But even if the Palestinian contention on the Deif strike is correct, it does not explain why several weeks of negotiations in Cairo between the two sides failed to produce an agreement. Nor does pointing out Egypt’s bias as a mediator because of its animosity toward Hamas offer much of an explanation. Once the negotiations commenced, Egypt’s overriding interest was to ensure their success and confirm its position as sole mediator. In order to help the talks succeed, in fact, Egypt introduced substantial modifications to the initial proposal that it had coordinated with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that had been rejected by Hamas.

A more persuasive explanation for the renewal of hostilities lies in the poor performance of the Israeli military. Despite conditions most military planners would salivate over — a poorly equipped enemy enclosed within a minuscule territory about which Israel has a half-century of comprehensive intelligence — Israel failed to achieve any significant objective in several weeks of nearly continuous bombardment and a limited ground invasion. And that is without any restraints from international, regional or domestic political pressure. Unable to deliver a serious blow to Palestinian armed groups or even demoralize them, Israeli leaders were reduced to presenting body counts that the United Nations says were mostly civilians and the destruction of residential neighborhoods as military achievements. Netanyahu’s quest to negotiate the victory in Cairo that has eluded him in Gaza was therefore doomed from the start.

Available reports coming out of the Cairo talks indicate that the Palestinian delegation showed flexibility on the implementation of any agreement, provided it entailed the removal rather than simply relaxation of the siege of the Gaza Strip. But any such truce, even if it conformed with the international consensus on ending the blockade of Gaza, would pose a major domestic political risk to the Israeli leader.  

Palestinian analyst Khalil Shaheen of the Palestinian think tank Masarat said, “It would be very difficult for Netanyahu to sign an agreement whose main element is the end of the siege and makes no mention of Palestinian disarmament and continue to declare victory.”

Not only would Israeli public opinion turn against him, but — particularly with Deif apparently having survived the attempt on his life — so would Netanyahu’s fractious coalition partners. That much was made clear during the talks, when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who still publicly advocates for an Israeli tank on every Gazan street and has criticized the prime minister’s handling of the Gaza operation, leaked a copy of Egyptian cease-fire proposals that Netanyahu and his defense minister had tried to keep hidden from their Cabinet colleagues.

Shaheen questions whether Israel would have been prepared to accept any agreement in Cairo. “Even one that meets all of Israel’s conditions would have been concluded with a unified Palestinian delegation, thereby recognizing the Palestinian Authority government Netanyahu has been urging the world to shun and whose removal has been one of his main objectives,” he said.

In April a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah resulted in the appointment of a government under Abbas but staffed by nonpartisan technocrats — a development fiercely opposed by Israel. That agreement meant Hamas accepted the principle of Palestinian Authority security forces managing the crossings into Gaza.

Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups vowed to launch a war of attrition if Israel refused to lift the blockade, and they made good on that threat this week by firing new salvos of rockets. A Hamas military spokesman stated that Egyptian mediation has run its course. With the situation in the Strip desperate even before the latest fighting, Palestinian factions there assess that Gaza’s population — which deeply desires an end to the siege — will prove more resilient than an Israeli society and economy less unaccustomed to regular disruptions of normal life. 

Similarly, they believe Israel will find it difficult to escalate its military blows in the Gaza Strip because of the risk of triggering widespread unrest in the West Bank and among Palestinians in Israel, the threat of being targeted from Lebanon and the growing Western reluctance to be associated with an Israeli campaign that has already triggered international calls for war crime investigations. Israel also risks complicating its relationship with Cairo if it walks away from the Egyptian cease-fire mediation in which Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s government has invested diplomatic prestige.

Israel is now left with three options, according to Hani al-Masri, director of Masarat: It could return to the table in Cairo, seek a UN Security Council resolution similar to the one that ended the 2006 Lebanon conflict (requiring the disarming of Hezbollah, which never materialized) or unilaterally declare a cessation of hostilities while relaxing the siege in meaningful ways through reconstruction efforts led by the Palestinian Authority and international community. He points out that within the Israeli government, aversion to agreement with Hamas spans the political spectrum, from Lieberman on the right to the more centrist negotiator Tzipi Livni. Whether an increasingly confident Hamas will accept such arrangements or can be pressured to do so by those who can offer to end its regional isolation is more difficult to predict.

Masri does not take seriously the possibility of a full-scale invasion of Gaza because the Israeli government does not have a credible exit strategy if it pursued that option.

Although Netanyahu shut down the most recent American attempt to revive a political horizon through negotiations with Abbas, his Gaza offensive has inadvertently put the need for a political solution to the conflict back on the international agenda.

At his press conference on 20 August, in which he had presumably hoped to announce the assassination of Deif, Netanyahu stated, “I hope Abbas will have a significant part in the new diplomatic horizon. I expect to start talks with a Palestinian government which can abandon the path of terror, and that is a part of a big package that I am talking about” — one more attempt to entice Abbas away from the reconciliation agreement with Hamas that is causing Netanyahu such grief, and also a vague gesture that on account of his own agenda and that of his coalition he is unwilling and unable to deliver on. That same day Israeli forces entered the El-Bireh home of PA Member of Parliament Khalida Jarrar, located only a few hundred meters from Abbas’s presidential compound – in an area in which the PA is supposed to exercise full jurisdiction – and served her with an order banishing her to Jericho.